DURHAM, N.C. &
DeMarcus Nelson has played on two Duke teams that advanced to the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
For this year's Duke team, that makes him the unquestioned voice of experience.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has won more NCAA tournament games than anyone in the sport's history. But his team this year has a surprising lack of postseason success on its roster: Seven of the 10 players in the rotation have never won a game in the NCAAs.
Entering the first round of the West Regional on Thursday against 15th-seeded Belmont in Washington, the two juniors and one senior at No. 2 seed Duke (27-5) are providing additional leadership as they chase the first Final Four of their careers.
"We have to lead first, with the guys (who) have experience, upperclassmen that have been in the position," said Nelson, the team's only senior on scholarship. "But at the same time, the younger guys have to come into the tournament excited. They should have a lot of enthusiasm, bring a lot of energy, and the older guys should be the ones poised, very confident and leading the younger guys. So we should have a pretty good blend, and they should go hand-in-hand."
A lack of NCAA experience would seem unthinkable at the elite program that under Krzyzewski has captured three national titles, reached 10 Final Fours and won at least one NCAA tournament game every postseason from 1997 until last season. This is Krzyzewski's 24th tournament appearance, and his 68 victories are the most of any coach in Division I history.
Juniors Greg Paulus and David McClure were part of two of those wins in 2006, when the top-seeded Blue Devils reached the round of 16. Nelson also was on the 2005 team that advanced out of the first weekend before falling in the regional semifinals, but he was still in high school in 2004, the last time Duke reached the Final Four.
The Blue Devils have three freshmen and four sophomores, the latter of whom have no NCAA tournament experience outside of last year's upset loss to Virginia Commonwealth in the first round.
"Our freshman and sophomore class has not won an NCAA game, so they're excited," Krzyzewski said. "I've got to be as excited, although I've been part of over 60 NCAA wins. That's what I get. Forget about what any of (the experts) predict for us. It really doesn't make any difference, as long as we are able to understand those type (of things) and I'm able to create that internal environment for our guys.
The players and coaches also are coming to grips with the fact that playing at Duke means chasing the ghosts of Christian Laettner and Grant Hill. The Blue Devils' consistently high level of success through the years means undefeated starts, top-five rankings and long winning streaks no longer catch anybody off guard.
"There will never be a (Duke) team that surprises, because of our name," Krzyzewski said. "I'm not knocking it (but) they would be written up differently. Just like last year's team with no seniors, (a record of) 22-11, it's a down year, whereas other people have freshmen and sophomores and they make the NIT and it's a great year.
"That's what happens, so I have to make sure that (the players) know how I feel and we feel about them. No one's started the year talking about us winning the national title, but when we won, no one really wants to talk about that that much. And then you lose. That's the cycle we're in."
Sophomore guard Jon Scheyer is eager to accept that challenge and make up for last year's shortcomings &
most notably, how VCU's Eric Maynor pulled up and knocked down the game-winning jumper over him to give the Blue Devils their first one-and-done in the NCAAs since 1996.
"We haven't won a game in the NCAA tournament (and) that's something I've always dreamed about," Scheyer said. "Playing in the tournament and winning games, going to Final Fours. For me and I know for ... my class, we're definitely really excited about playing in it this year."
Duke young and eager
DURHAM, N.C. &